Review: Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South
Bryan Giemza. Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. 361 pp. ISBN 978-0-8071-5090-0.
Bryan Giemza’s work defies simple categorization. It draws from a variety of disciplines, including literary studies, ethic studies, southern studies, and history. In this rich and complex study, Giemza seeks to add a chapter to the story of American Irish Catholics and to the story of the American South. Well-versed in these subjects, Giemza previously has co-authored a biography of the “Poet-Priest of the South,” Father Abraham Ryan, and edited a biographical dictionary of southern authors. His latest work opens with a rather dense but necessary discussion of terminology, in which he explores the various ways writers have used labels like “Irish,” “Scotch-Irish,” and “Irish American.” Explaining his own use of “Irish,” “Catholic,” and “southern,” he defines each very broadly (even including as southern Irish Catholics writers who claimed not to be), but avoids over-simplifications. He understands southern Irish Catholicism less in terms of background or religious affiliation than as a lens through which a writer viewed the world.
Giemza’s stated goal is modest. He denies that he has “perceived a revisionist truth that others have overlooked,” but hopes instead that by “pointing to what was there all along,” he will help scholars view southern Irish writers as integral to understanding both southern and Irish American literature (22). In fact, however, he does this and a good deal more. His wide-ranging work spans from the first Irish American novel, published in Virginia in 1817, to contemporary writers like Pat Conroy. He discusses numerous authors, such as Flannery O’Connor, about whom it is by now difficult to say anything new, as well as others who will be much less familiar to readers. Most significantly, he demonstrates how southern Irish Catholics, as both insiders and outsiders in southern society, wrote from a unique perspective. He argues that, despite obvious tensions between Irish Catholic culture and evangelical southern culture, strong affinities bound the two, including acceptance of social hierarchies, distrust of modernism, a sense of connection to the dead, and of course, the experience of defeat in rebellion. Though other scholars have similarly noted how Catholicism fit naturally into the worldview of the southern ruling class, Giemza develops this argument by analyzing literature that not only reflected southern worldviews but also interpreted and shaped them. While not claiming an exclusive or unique role for Irish Catholic writers, Giemza argues that they too must be part of the story of how the South came to be.
Giemza’s work is an excellent resource for those interested in the construction of southern identity, particularly the role of Irish Catholics writer in that process. Scholars and students of southern literature will certainly profit from his wide-ranging references to authors and theorists. This work may be challenging for readers with a more casual interest, as Giemza presupposes a great deal of familiarity with various authors and sources, and his writing, although often elegant and witty, is not always as clear as it might be. But for those willing to follow him on a tour through nearly two hundred years of literature, he offers new insights into the ways that Irish Catholics help shape the South.